The goal of my HFG grant was to account for variation in the degree of violence in the critical moment of state breakdown in the former Soviet Union. At this moment, as in the case of many imperial breakdowns, the level of ethnic violence increased markedly compared to the era of Soviet hegemony. My previous research examining ethnic identification in four republics (Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) was inadequate to account for variations in violence, since all of them were peaceful. The HFG grant allowed me to replicate the research techniques used in my earlier studies to include two cases where there was significant secessionist violence in the new republics (Moldova and Azerbaijan). Two theories were tested to account for the variation in cases. The oft-cited theory of Donald Horowitz emphasizes psychological mechanisms affecting self-esteem; the greater the challenge to ethnic self-esteem, the more likely the violence. An alternative theory by James Fearon and Pieter van Houten, based on Rogers Brubaker’s “triadic configuration,” is also tested. This theory relies on a commitment logic, and hypothesizes secessionist violence where minority groups get clear signals of support, should they try to secede, from a national homeland.
These findings are important because they tell us that the quality of ethnic relations is less important than previously thought in accounting for violence; and that interventions by neighboring states (or rump groups within them) are often the culprits for civil war violence.
The newly collected data did not support the predictions that would follow from Horowitz’s theory. Ethnic relations in Moldova and Azerbaijan were no more challenging to self-esteem than in the peaceful republics. The commitment theory, however, was consistent with the data and the historical record. In Moldova a rump-Soviet army unit and in Azerbaijan a strong militia from Armenia gave unqualified support to secessionists, thereby emboldening them. Meanwhile, Russia gave only mixed signals to the Russian minorities in the four peaceful republics. These findings are important because they tell us that the quality of ethnic relations is less important than previously thought in accounting for violence; and that interventions by neighboring states (or rump groups within them) are often the culprits for civil war violence. The research findings were published in Comparative Political Studies (Laitin 2001) as “Secessionist Rebellion in the Former Soviet Union.” The research materials were also the basis for a doctoral dissertation by Alena Guboglo at Moscow State University.